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Anonymous sources and loss of trust in the media

“That’s one problem with anonymous sources: They often get it wrong because why make sure you have it right when you will not be held accountable for what you say.”

-John Christie, Poynter

Most of us have probably heard by now of The Atlantic Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg’s article entitled “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.’”

The story was based entirely upon anonymous sources. The use of anonymous sources has disputed by multiple officials on the record and of course broadly condemned by Republicans and the Trump administration. However, it was not broadly condemned by journalists.

As late as 2014, non-profit research organization Poynter published an article warning journalists about relying too much on anonymous sources.

John Christie wrote in that 2014 article: “The frequent and often unnecessary use of anonymous sources reinforces the mistrust readers already have for journalists.

Evidently times have changed. In September 2020, Poynter wrote that you should still be willing to trust anonymous sources.

Anyone who has actually listened to what Trump has said in the past about the military and read his own words knows that Trump loves the military. He speaks considerably in his book “Great Again: How to Fix Our Crippled America” about how the military needs to be supported again and how we need to take care of our injured soldiers. He also has helped considerably boost military spending.

There’s no disputing that he has made some off-the-cuff comments that were in poor tasted, including former Senator and veteran John McCain. However, that is not evidence that he thinks poorly of the military.

Even John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser who had no love for Trump, disputed the claims in The Atlantic.

But this article is not about Trump. It is about the overall credibility of the journalists today.

When anonymous sources can be used

The larger problem with anonymous sources is that they undermine the credibility of journalism. The Atlantic has long been a highly respected magazine in the United States, and Goldberg is its editor-in-chief.

Most understand that there is a place for anonymous sources, albeit limited.

For example, investigative journalist Carl Bernstein noted that all of the 200 articles he and fellow Washington Post report Bob Woodward wrote about Watergate were based on anonymous sources.

But there is a difference between writing articles based on anonymous sources vs. writing articles that only use anonymous sources. Since Goldberg wrote the article, multiple officials came forward disputing his claim. Goldberg never admitted to lying, but he also failed to ever reveal anyone on the record.

Former New York Times reporter Alex Berensen explains the difference between Goldberg’s article vs. the work that Woodward and Bernstein made on the Watergate scandal.

“Granting anonymity to the people making these allegations against President Donald Trump is very problematic journalistically,” he writes. “Here’s why. 1: These are not whistleblowers trying to expose illegal or potentially illegal activity. The allegations are simple character assassination. 2: They don’t even have any temporal urgency – meaning Trump didn’t do this yesterday, these (alleged) incidents are years old. So the people reporting them have an obligation to disclose as much as possible about the people making them to let readers judge motivation themselves. 3: On top of that, all the usual caveats apply – the interactions are basically hearsay, no emails or other documentation exist, and so people should know whether the person who is reporting them heard what Trump said first-, second-, or third-hand. 4: Finally, the political motivation is obvious here. And there’s no evidence anyone will face retribution – blowing the whistle on Trump seems more likely to lead to a book contract than anything else. So why exactly is anonymity required here?”

In short, The Atlantic piece does not meet the threshold for entirely relying on anonymous sources.

The work that Goldberg did was very different from what Bob Woodward did.

Woodward relied heavily on FBI official Mark Felt, possibly the most famous anonymous source ever. Felt was identified as the famous “Deep Throat” source. However, Woodward then went to gather other sources on the record.

Also, even though Woodward is a journalism legend, some of his work was questioned. For example, Felt denied later in life that he was indeed the “Deep Throat” source. It was only after he had dementia that Woodward confirmed with his attorney that he was Deep Throat. It helped that Felt’s family claimed also that Felt was Deep Throat, although they had financial incentives for doing so. Felt probably was in fact Deep Throat, but Woodward still needed to do his homework and reveal his notes and background.

Others also have questioned some of the details of Woodward’s claims. Even a legend needs to do his work carefully.

Gaining readers’ trust

The September 2020 Poynter article seems to be preaching to readers when it writes: “Is it possible for news organizations to make up an anonymous source? Sure, anything is possible. But it’s highly unlikely. Nothing is more crucial to a news organization than its trustworthiness, and that could be ruined forever if it was ever caught making up sources. News outlets know that and would be loath to risk such a thing.”

In other words, it seems to be saying: “We wouldn’t dare put our credibility on the line. You need to trust us.”

That’s a very different angle than Poynter’s 2014 article, in which its author John Christie wrote: “That’s one problem with anonymous sources: They often get it wrong because why make sure you have it right when you will not be held accountable for what you say.”

Christie also writes: ““And even if it is accurate, readers cannot judge the value of the material for themselves if they don’t know the source. Many sources hide behind anonymity to take cheap shots without anyone knowing they have an axe to grind or a dog in the fight.”

The public’s trust in the media has been steadily declining for the past 20 years. You would think they would spend more time working on being credible than by simply posting stories based solely on anonymous sources and lecturing readers to simply trust them.

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